Not since an unexpected angel crashed through the ceiling in Angels in America has there been such a felicitous celestial arrival as the one early on in Matt & Ben, the much-hyped 2003 off-Broadway comedy that's receiving its St. Louis premiere as part of the NonProphet Theater Company's inaugural season.
The hijinks get off to a brisk start. Two ambitious young on-the-fringe actors who happen to be named Matt Damon and Ben Affleck hope to chart a route to riches through their screenplay adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye. As they stall out on that effort, lo and behold, a package drops from the sky and lands squarely on the coffee table before them.
Wow! How'd they pull that off? Not the characters; the package falling from the sky! The sheer mechanics are wondrous. How did director/set designer Robert A. Mitchell get it to land so dead-on? Wouldn't it slide a little bit when it hit the table? Nope. Nifty.
Unwrapped, the package reveals a completely written, ready-to-film original screenplay (no adaptations for God) with the unlikely title Good Will Hunting. But of course this is more than a mere script. The package may have dropped from Heaven, but it's offering a Faustian pact with the Devil, for it promises the lure of fame, wealth, excess. Our dynamic duo of doltry are in no mind to heed the advice of their future Hunting co-star Robin Williams, who once warned, "Cocaine is God's way of telling you that you've made too much money." They're in the more aggressive mode of: Bring It On.
The premise is filled with promise. The problem is that said premise doesn't go anywhere. Is the script Matt & Ben, that is; not Good Will Hunting a lampoon? Is it intended as parody? And if so, how do you parody a public jester like Affleck, who has already parodied himself beyond toleration? Lots of barbs are directed at the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and David Schwimmer, but what's the focus here? Is the play about anything beyond its own Afflecktations? Perhaps the most telling voice belongs to the elusive J.D. Salinger, who appears unexpectedly to warn that "paths that keep crossing lead you in circles." Amen to that.
This extended Saturday Night Live sketch was written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, two actresses in pursuit of a vehicle for themselves. So now Ben and Matt will always be played by women. I'm not quite sure what's to be gained by that, but then I've never understood why Peter Pan is only enacted by females. Here, the genial Matt of Margeau Baue Steinau and the too-cool Ben of Kirsten Wylder are defined by loud voices, exaggerated mannerisms, ever-swaying shoulders, constantly contorted bodies...which might be precisely what sketch comedy requires.
But savvy sketch comedy rarely outstays its welcome. Matt & Ben stretches out over two acts, which is a mistake. With material this thin, you don't really want to give your audience a break in which to think about what they're viewing. Because if you think too much, you might come to realize that what's really being satirized here is neither Damon nor Affleck, but rather the audience and its unhealthy fixation on celebrity.
You could present a play called Mark & Bill about two wannabes, and this same script verbatim except for the name changes wouldn't sell three tickets. Viewers may pretend they have nothing but contempt for today's publicity-crazed cultural icons, but put those same objects of disdain on the stage and the dogs will lick. This play is a successfully cynical appeal to the basest curiosity of its audiences. Maybe next year's attention-getting satire will be two actresses as Jake & Heath on the Range. Or perhaps two unemployed actors will write a script for themselves called Paris & Nicole Do Arkansas. I can hear the coffers jangling already.